Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

The Perils of Cardboard

By Ruth Pischke

2002, Ruth Pischke

Writing is a craft founded on passion.  It burns inside and we ache to put to paper the visions that we see in our mind's eye. Yet it is that same driving need that can lead writers to make mistakes.  One of the more common mistakes is creating a cardboard family.  The loner with no past, the orphaned thief, the placid man who seeks to avenge his murdered family, the abandoned youth who somehow ends up being the savior of the world, and so on.  It's most noticeable in Fantasy, but it happens in most genres.  The cardboard family is a one-dimensional, stereotypic creation meant to serve one purpose: get the hero into the middle of the action. 

Why does it happen?  It could be that the idea of crafting a believable family intimidates some writers who are afraid that they will never do justice to the concept of the family.  From my own experience, though, I suspect that it is something else altogether.  Families are ignored in the novice's mistaken belief that they are not important.  If the story then sells, that belief is validated and the writer continues to make the same mistake.

When we first start to write, we want to use all those ideas that threaten to burst out of our skulls.  Our hands are twitching, and we are confident that world building is a simple matter of making up the impressively magnificent hero, the stupendously hateful villain, a loyal sidekick or two and a few exotic-sounding locations.  There are times when a character design looks like a chart from a role-playing game instead of a person's history.  The novice chooses not to develop the character's family because it seems tedious and unimportant. That is, if it even occurs to the novice to consider it in the first place.

Novices can be in such a hurry to start writing that orphans and cardboard families look like easy shortcuts to get the story moving.  Writers, no matter how inexperienced, know that there must be some reason that the hero ended up in the middle of the disastrous mess that is the story's central crisis.  The novice can be tempted to use the first response that comes to mind, not realizing that the most obvious answers are rarely the correct ones.

As a result, Joe becomes an orphaned thief, Jane becomes the young woman fleeing from her greedy father who wants her to marry the evil mayor, and Bill becomes a silent brooding warrior because the Forces Of Evil slaughtered his family.  The answers that sound so good to the novice ear are only cardboard solutions to a larger issue:  What makes an ordinary person fight, even at the risk of death?  Family.  If you don't give your characters that anchor, you are crippling them.

Family is often the ultimate reason that we do things, even if we do not realize it at the time. We love, hate, fear and believe because of family.  It is both our strength and our weakness.  The family is where we come from, and it's where our characters come from too.  Even orphans had family once and people they consider to be family now.  Leaving your characters rudderless only hurts them.

The orphan character has its uses but can lure a novice into making things larger and grander than they should be.  Catastrophes become world-encompassing but emotionally remote.  The larger the scope of the disaster, the more abstract it can seem to the reader.  People can instantly imagine personal loss or the death of an individual.  The deaths of millions, however, can be too large to grasp and is reduced to mere number crunching.

The orphans themselves seem to exist in a vacuum, as though they had never had family to begin with, or are in the hands of caregivers who are always insensitive, cruel, or scheming.  They exist solely to push the hero out the door and into the main plot.

When the novice writer does create a family for the character, the temptation is to turn them into an ideal image of family life.  As a result, family members become faceless and bland in their perfection. It is a result, I suspect, of wish fulfillment.  Who doesn't want the perfect spouse, kids, siblings, and parents?  The problem is that everyone knows these people do not exist.  The reader dismisses and forgets them.

And what happens if the cardboard family is killed off in a bid to provoke sympathy?  For a death to mean something, the life first has to have been important.  Most of the time, the reader will have seen it coming after the first sentence. It may provoke a yawn, but is unlikely to generate much more.

The novice writer has to learn that any good tale requires a good background, and that shortcuts will only hurt the story.  This includes the creation of believable families for the characters.  It doesn't matter how much, or how little, stage time the family has.  What is important is that the people are realistic.

Look at the family as a motivator and as a backbone.  They are the source of strength your hero Joe relies on when things get tough, or the reason Jane has all those hobbies and personal rituals.  Family could be the reason why Clarice will never touch a drop of alcohol, or why Bill worries obsessively that every spot and blemish might be cancer.  Any character's history must inevitably include the issue of family, so why not make a real one instead of a facsimile?

It can seem overwhelming when you realize that you not only have four major characters, six side characters and a slew of villains to develop, but also their families as well.  It can make novices want to throw up their hands in despair and curl up into a ball in the closet.  This can be less intimidating than one might think.  The family can be designed in parallel with the character, or developed from the character's already designed background.

While designing a character profile, keep asking yourself questions such as Who, Why, and When.  Let the character's personality, habits, hobbies, and failed jobs and romances be a guide to what the family is like.  Even the age difference between siblings can provide valuable information on how the members of the family relate to one another.  Let each question lead to another question until the result is compelling and believable.

Don't be afraid to include both dark and light in the family dynamics.  A son can both love and hate his father; a daughter can both admire and resent her mother.  That older brother can be an annoying jerk, and also a substitute father figure.  That younger sibling that steals the clothes from your character's closet can also be the one who instinctively knows how to solve thorny problems.  Mom can be an alcoholic who becomes a horror when she's drunk, but is loving when she's sober.  Dad might come from the generation that feels awkward about expressing affection and seems distant to his confused teenage daughter.

It is vital that you be honest with yourself and resist the urge to tone down things that upset you.  Take advantage of them instead.  Ask yourself how your characters feel about their parents, spouses, siblings, in-laws, and children. What do they love about their family, and what do they hate?  Which family members do they feel closest to?  What family members do they have the most trouble dealing with?  What subjects will spur a friendly or intense conversation?  Which subject is guaranteed to leave everyone angry and upset?  The list of questions to ask is endless, but never forget to find out why things are the way they are.  Always ask yourself "Why?"

People are who they are because of their families.  Their entire world is colored by where they came from and what their circumstances were.  Families aren't stereotypes in real life, so they shouldn't be in fiction either.  A family doesn't have to be totally bad for someone to want to leave, and a family doesn't have to be perfect for someone to fight to the death to protect them.  Cardboard may be useful in some situations, but it doesn't hold up very well under pressure.

Characters may be fabrications but they are people nonetheless. The novice writer should learn to see characters as people in their own right, and give them the depth they need to come to life.  It is the characters that live and breathe, that have an existence outside that of the writer, who have the biggest impact on the reader.

Tame your impatience and create fully fleshed characters, ones that have a genuine past.  Create families that can be anchors for your characters to rely on for that time when you will put them through hell.  Turn your back on cardboard.